16 February ~ FC Porto are top of the Portuguese Liga but are stuttering. With a game in hand, the country’s biggest club Benfica trail by 11 points but are now producing football on a par with last season, when they broke a sequence of four Porto titles on the trot. However, neither club has been grabbing the headlines in the sports press over the past week.
Benfica's Lisbon rivals Sporting are a further 12 points behind Porto. No one, not even the most ardent Sporting fan, is expecting them to recover the lost ground, even less so now that they’ve bid farewell to their best and most popular player of recent seasons: Brazilian striker Liedson has returned home, to Corinthians, after seven-and-a-half years in the Portuguese capital.
In his time at Sporting, the 33-year-old received his own customised terrace banners, a slogan also adopted for newspaper headlines: “Liedson Resolves” (ie games with his goals). He did just that and often, scoring 117 times in 214 games. In his last appearance, at home to bottom club Naval, he scored two to limit the damage in a 3-3 draw. Grown men wept openly as Levezinho (“the light one” – he weighs just 11st 7lb) grabbed the announcer’s mic and took his leave of sportinguistas from the centre-spot, tennis-style. Some of the tears shed will have been for his parting, some for the realisation that, as a source of goals, hopes now rest on Hélder Postiga.
Behind the scenes, the club is in disarray. President José Eduardo Bettencourt announced his resignation in mid-January after an especially feeble 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Paços de Ferreira, the jeers from the crowd still ringing in his ears. A month earlier he had brought in former FC Porto and Portugal Under-21 coach José Couceiro to be general director of football, plonking him squarely on the toes of the existing director of football, Costinha.
Costinha bit his lip until the weekend before last when he gave an interview on TV, called Liedson’s transfer “ruinous” and admitted: “Couceiro has achieved the same as me: nothing.” He was sacked on Wednesday. Sporting are more than €250 million in debt. Irregular home performances and the reduced chance of winning the title this year have dragged average crowds down to just 25,000 in the 52,000-seat Alvalade XXI. There was the promise of an injection into the club of €50m by Jorge Braz da Silva, a candidate for the presidential elections on March 26, but he dropped out of the race last week, citing internecine feuds ¬– a reasonable excuse under the circumstances. Phil Town